205, St Joseph High Street, Ħamrun
Tel: 2701 0079
The main pull when planning a holiday genuinely tends to be the cuisine. I went to Vietnam in search of the perfect Hieu Tieu which I discovered on a ramshackle boat on the Mekong Delta or Banh Mi on the side streets of Hanoi.
I hit the stalls of Moroccan souks in search of the right spices to replicate the questionable mystery meat tagines my palate instantly fell in love with. Pain, vin and fromage were the only three words I needed to book my tickets to Paris.
The only exception to this rule (apart from the occasional trip to London) came about when I had booked a three-week trip to the west coast, US. What I discovered there though was a cornucopia of scrumptious culinary cultures. I had my first taste of real Mexican food on the San Diego border, Dim sum and ‘proper’ Chinese food in San Francisco’s Chinatown and an array of Pacific sushi in Los Angeles.
It wasn’t before a cheeky stop in the fabled In and Out chain that I came to the conclusion that the most iconic American meal is probably the humble burger. And it was this experience that also made me realise that there is a lot more to a good burger than I had previously ever considered.
First of all, background information. There has been a growing trend that started in the States called fast casual dining. The main differentiation between that and more typical fast food establishments are the quality and freshness of the produce. To put it in local terms, it’s the difference between McDonald’s and New York Best.
These restaurants have really upped the game. A different blend of beef cuts is going to give you a totally different burger experience. Gone are the days of random mince meat from your local butcher’s. Nowadays more chefs are mixing brisket, sirloin, chuck or shortrib for that right balance of beefiness and fat content. They boast bespoke buns and signature sauces. They ask how you would like your burger cooked and if they don’t ask, they assume it’s medium.
I can’t emphasise enough how glad I am that we are moving away from the traditional disc of chewy carbon that we used to call a burger. And while I understand that some people have a paranoid reaction to pink meat, they in turn need to understand that they are very, very wrong.
This of course all comes at a cost. Higher-quality produce and better-trained staff means that gone are the days of €6.95 meals. The higher the cost, the higher the expectation and these days a burger meal can set you back anywhere between €9 and €16. At the cost of most other meals, that meat and bun combo better blow your socks off. And up until now, as far as I’m concerned, I don’t think anywhere has really hit that mark yet. Or at least, not until very recently.
Ok, maybe it’s a bad judgement call, but I don’t really equate Ħamrun with particularly amazing food barring a few exceptions. I quite fancy a particular pizzeria there and a certain Middle Eastern restaurant is a regular haunt of mine, but other than that I find very little reason to really turn to the village for sustenance. On a recent drive through the high street however, a new sign caught my eye and my interest was immediately piqued.
One quick look at the menu and our appetites burst forth like the morning
Smack bang in the heart of Ħamrun high street, Bandit looks like it would be more at home in a more upbeat part of the island. The black façade and warm lighting make it simultaneously blend in and stick out of its surroundings. I was immediately intrigued and pretty much press-ganged the driver into finding the next parking spot and becoming my unwitting accomplice. If we weren’t hungry before we walked in, one quick look at the menu and our appetites burst forth like the morning. Much like sweet and sour pork is the litmus test of any Chinese takeout (or a carbonara in the case of any pasta house), I just had to order a bacon cheese burger. My associate went a completely different route and ordered the chicken and waffles. For the sake of research I snuck in an order of pork belly bites. In the name of science, of course.
We sat at one of the three small tables available inside. There are a few counters with stools up against the wall, but the stools made no sense to me. They were way too low to make sitting at the counters at all feasible. The decor is in line with the very popular industrial/Scandinavian style hipster joints that are popping up pretty much globally.
We didn’t wait particularly long for our food although our server was very apologetic for any delays, non-existent though they may have been. And that’s when I saw them. Our meals. Magnificent. Majestic. Missing the order of pork bites. This time I accepted his reasonable apology and turned my attention to my extremely appealing looking food in front of us. The chicken and waffles were calling to me.
We tore through that plate like it were a matter of life or death. The buttermilk fried chicken thigh was moist and crunchy, the Belgian waffle crisp and fluffy, the maple-covered bacon sweet and smoky and savoury. Every bite was perfection. The portion size was perfectly reasonable. Especially when you consider the €6.95 price tag. Bargain.
With that done and dusted, we focussed in on the main attraction.
I like cheese on my burger. I like cheese with every bite. This burger made sure I got all the cheese I wanted, because they don’t use traditional sliced cheese. This was an honest to goodness cheese sauce. Guessing by the consistency and texture of the condiment, it started as a roux and cheddar was slowly incorporated until it hit the perfect consistency for it to coat the entire patty and add the slightest sharpness to the burger. The beef itself was nicely caramelised and I recognised the smash technique used to prepare it.
You see, by pressing the burger onto the grill it allows you to create more craggy, edgy bits. This in turn allows the beef to crisp on the outside a lot better making perfect use of the Maillard Reaction. Have a read online, it’s fascinating and will change the way you tackle food. The more you know folks.
The burger was perfect as were the fries that accompanied them. There’s only one thing I really want on my fries and that is salt; something majorly overlooked in a number of venues. These taters were treated with care. And at around €10, what more could you want?
As the last of the meaty morsel slid down my greasy gullet, our deep fried pork belly bites were placed on our table. Pork belly is already super fatty and deep frying it made it for a heavy mouthful to stomach. The sriracha mayo worked very well with it but still wasn’t enough. Luckily, this all sits on a bed of pickled red cabbage that tied that dish together magically. The tart acid balanced the fattiness and the heat. So simple. So effective. I had no room but by god did I make some.
A quick chat with the cook at the end of the meal and it was clear the food here is cooked with pride and love. They tried to push desserts onto us as they have a very tempting-looking sweet menu, but I know when I am defeated and tapped out gracefully.
Their location may not be easily accessible and this is much cause of lamentation for the business. However, I can certainly assure you I will be making this a regular haunt of mine, and I will blaze through the entire menu come hell or high water. Because this Bandit is reminiscent of a certain Robin Hood. Stealing richness and delivering it through the humble burger.
I told you I like cheese.
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